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[YRP Students' Essays] Santa Claus in History, Myth, and Image

Most people all over the world are excited on the day of December 25th, Christmas. It is said that this is the birthday of Jesus Christ. Especially children are really happy for this day to come because they can get presents from Santa Claus if they have been good boys and girls throughout the year. As you know, Santa Claus is a man who gives gifts to children all over the world, riding a sleigh with reindeer on the night before Christmas day. However, there is nothing written about Santa Claus in the Bible. Also, this means that there seems to be no connection between Santa Claus and Christmas. The Bible only says, "she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger..." (NRSV, Luke 2:7). However, Santa Claus has a great effect on people around the world because everyone knows about him. Even though people think that Santa Claus is a mythological character, he lived in the real world a long time ago, his image mixed with a lot of stories, and even now, he gives much influence to many countries.

First of all, we have to know that Santa Claus has two models. One is not a mythical person but actually existed. It is St. Nicholas. He was born in the fourth century in Greece. He became one of the youngest bishops ever at age seventeen. At age thirty, he became the Bishop of Myra, a port town on the Mediterranean Sea. Myra is in present-day Turkey (Did you know, n.d.). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left much money for him. After he died, especially Dutch people honored him (Ogihara, 2001).

The reason why he became the model of Santa Claus is that there are some stories about him helping many poor people by giving secret gifts they needed, and also he loved children very much. The most famous story about St. Nicholas is helping three sisters:

One day, there was a poor man with three daughters but he was in trouble about them. He was so poor that he could not afford to give money for a dowry. Due to his poverty, his three daughters could not get married. One night, St. Nicholas, who secretly had known about the poor man's situation, dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into his house. The bag fell into a stocking which had been hung by the fire to dry. Thanks to St. Nicholas' help, the poor man's first daughter could get married. The same thing happened for the second daughter's marriage. When St. Nicholas tried to do the same for the third daughter, he was found out by their father (Cooper, 2008). Some experts say the bag of gold fell into wooden shoes (Ferishimo Christmas bunka kenkyujo, 1992). This is the one of the St. Nicholas stories. After this event, he was known as the Saint of Children.

The other model of Santa Claus is Odin. This is not a person who actually existed but a God who was worshipped in Northern Europe before Christianity. At that time, people there believed in numerous Gods and honored them. One of them was Odin. According to tradition, he came to children's houses by riding a horse with eight legs or a sled with reindeer on the winter solstice, around December 22nd. Also, people thought that he presented gifts to children who had been good all year. On the other hand, they thought he punished children who had been bad. When their houses were locked, he went into their house though the chimney (Blackwood, 1988). This way of giving presents to children is very similar, for both St. Nicholas and Odin did it through the chimney. Also, it is said that St. Nicholas wore red clothes because bishops' clothes were always red at that time (Ferishimo Christmas bunka kenkyujo, 1992).

However, these two origins of Santa Claus are a little different from his present figure. The modern image of Santa Claus is generally that of a man who is kind and wears red and white trimmed clothes with a black belt. In the case of St. Nicholas, he was not fat, he always straightened his back, and he was lean and sober (Ogihara, 2001). According to old paintings, Odin was drawn as many kinds of figures. One of them was a dwarf who wore a red overcoat. The other was a tall god with a snow white overcoat, a dwarf with green clothes and holly crown, and so on (Blackwood, 1988). Just comparing his clothing one can see a lot of differences. Later, even though people had changed their religion to Christianity, the custom of believing in Odin still remained. Because of this, these two models became mixed, and became much closer to the figure of the present-day Santa Claus. In Holland, the mixed figure was called "Sinterkllas" which means St. Nicholas in Dutch. In some paintings he appeared as a person who rode on a white horse with eight legs and flew in the sky (Ferishimo Christmas bunka kenkyujo, 1992). This appearance seems to be similar to the story mentioned earlier. He came to be a very important model for the modern style of Santa Claus.

When we consider how the modern image of Santa Claus came to be, it is important to know that our image of him tends to be American style. This is because of the influence of colonization in the U.S from Holland. In the 1620s, the Dutch came to America and established "New Amsterdam" in present-day New York (Ogihara, 1997). At that time, the Dutch immigrants came there with the story of "Sinterkllas," the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. American people rendered "Sinterkllas" as "Santa Claus" in English. Americans imagined that "Sinterkllas" was portly because many of the Dutch merchants were plump and had pipes (Ferishimo Christmas bunka kenkyujo, 1992). Because of this effect, the image of Santa Claus's body today is stout.

As you can see, the image of Santa Claus is getting closer to his modern style. However, there are still some questions about him. Why does he come on the night before December 25th, even though there seems to be no relation between Santa Claus and Jesus? Actually, there is nothing related with Christianity except that St. Nicholas was truly one of the Christian Bishops. In fact, the day of Jesus' birthday is in doubt because some researchers consider that the date for Christmas might be January 1st or March 28th (Ogihara, 1997).

The reason why Santa Claus comes to children's houses is related to the origins of giving gifts to children. The original custom of giving presents was on December 6th, the day of St. Nicholas. It is said that this was the day when St. Nicholas died. Originally, this giving of presents was not performed by Santa Claus, but by adults for children. This event was practiced by large groups like villages, and one of the group's leaders who dressed up as St. Nicholas went to children's houses with his homely looking attendant, Fettar. They asked some questions of children such as "Do you always help your mother?" or "Did you do bad things?" After that, good children could get some candies. That night, children prepared new wooden shoes in front of the fireplace because if St. Nicholas judged a child as good, some presents such as dried walnuts, a big apple or cookies were placed in the shoes. Children expected that they could get these goodies. On the other hand, to the children who were judged as bad, Fettar gave a whip, peel of potato, and so on (Ogihara, 2001).

Based on this event, Dutch people started the custom of giving presents in the 13th to 14th Century from the Sinterkllas Church in Holland. It is said that St. Nicholas comes to Holland at the end of November, and visits children's hospitals until the day of December 6th with his attendant, Blackpete. He is said to send gifts for children before the festival of St. Nicholas (Ogihara, 2001). This event is still held today in Holland (AFP BB news, 2008). Even in America, presents used to be given on December 6th. In 1809, the famous writer Washington Irving wrote of Santa Claus as "St. A Claus," and described "the arrival of the Saint on horseback each Eve of Saint Nicholas" (, 2008).

However, people currently give their presents on Christmas. Surprisingly, this reason is related to one famous poem. That is "A visit from St. Nicholas," written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822. This poem is now famous as "the night before Christmas" (Woodlands Junior School, 2008). This poem starts with the famous sentence; "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse" (Moore, 1985). Thus we know that he described the day when the giver of presents comes as the day before Christmas; the midnight of December 24th. At first, this poem was not so famous, but Moore's children told it to many people. Thanks to their action, this poem appeared in some magazines and spread to many people (Ogihara, 2001). From such a long process, the day of giving presents has been settled upon as December 25th.

There is still one question left about him: how the similar image of him was spread throughout the world. The key to this question is pictures and advertisements. There are three parts to it. The first model of today's style of Santa Claus was Thomas Nast's picture. He was a Civil War era cartoonist. He drew Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly in 1862 (Coca Cola Company, 2008). For about thirty years, he added the details of Santa Claus, such as Santa's workshop at the North Pole and Santa's list of goods (, 2008). Due to his illustrations, people can much more easily imagine what he is like. Furthermore, Nast's pictures changed the image to be more like our "Santa Claus" than "St. Nicholas" (, 2008). One aspect of this change is that there were fewer religious objects in his pictures.

The second model for the current image of Santa Claus was from Coca Cola's winter campaign advertisements in 1931. At that time, people thought Coca-Cola was only for the warm weather. "The Coca-Cola Company began a campaign to remind people that Coca-Cola was a great choice in any month" (Coca Cola Company, 2008). They decided on the concept called 'Thirst Knows No Season,' and they commissioned Haddon Sundblom as Santa Claus' illustrator. For inspiration, he referred to 'A Visit from St. Nicholas.' The poem "led to an image of a pleasantly plump human" (Coca Cola Company, 2008) where there had been no image of Santa Claus as a human before. Before Sundblom, most paintings rendered Santa Claus as a dwarf. Sundblom continued drawing Santa Claus for about 33 years for Coca Cola. It helped us to imagine Santa Claus. Due to his work, Santa Claus became a most famous and fantastic person known by people all over the world.

Besides the U.S., there are also many other styles of Santa Claus in the world. The most similar image of a local Santa Claus is "Father Christmas" in the U.K. It is said that he is also based on St. Nicholas as a model. In England, Santa Claus is called Father Christmas. In the old days, he was "originally part of an old English midwinter festival, normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. He was known as 'Sir Christmas,' 'Old Father Christmas,' or 'Old Winter'" (Coca Cola Company, 2008). At this time, Father Christmas did not bring any gifts for children. Father Christmas only looked around from home to home, knocking on doors and feasting with families. Moreover, there was no general idea that children should receive something from adults. This idea of giving was spread in the 19th century. Because of this influence, people started to think that they should give something to help poor children (Ogihara, 2001). By the 1970s the American style of Santa Claus had gone to England, and was assimilated (Ogihara, 2001). Now, these two figures only have a few differences.

In Japan, people similarly enjoy Christmas, and children look forward to Santa Claus' gift giving. It is said that Christmas in Japan was introduced in the 16th Century (Kracht & Kracht, 1999). At that time, Japan started to connect with other countries, especially with the Southern European countries such as Portugal and Spain. Because of this, missionaries came and spread the culture of Christmas (Kracht & Kracht, 1999). Though there is no specific documentation when the story of Santa Claus came to Japan, it is said that the European people who were employed by the government brought his story in the Meiji era (Kracht & Kracht, 1999). In those days, Japanese people did not think of Christmas as an important event like now. Furthermore, mandating people not to believe in Christianity in 1587 disrupted the spreading of Christmas and Santa Claus (Konifa no chiisana mori ponnitai, 2009). More recently, Christmas and Santa Claus have spread through commercialization, and gradually Japanese have become interested in this event. Now, they enjoy Christmas and look forward to Santa Claus' coming even though most of them are not Christian.

In conclusion, Santa Claus actually existed from a long time ago. His legend has continued for eighteen centuries, mixing with that of Odin. Through time, the original St. Nicholas became Sinterkllas through this blend. The story of him went to the U.S where many painters and writers influenced our thoughts about him. This effort led to making our well-known Santa Claus. Thinking about his whole story, he was made not only from history but also imaginatively created. Many people think that Santa Claus is a figure in mythology and not related to Christianity. However, one of the models of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was actually a bishop. Also, Santa Claus shows the most important concept of Christianity: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" (Luke 10:27). Bringing presents for children all over the world without hoping for return shows his love for children. This is one reason for his being loved by people worldwide.


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Konifa no chiisana mori ponnitai (2009). Nihon no kurisumasu [Japanese Christmas]. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from

Kracht, K., & Kracht, T. K. (1999). Kurisumasu: douyatte nihon ni teichaku shitanoka [Christmas: How it was established in Japan]. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten.

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Ogihara, Y. (1997). Santa Claus gaku nyumon: Himotokeba ai! [Introduction of Wisdom in Santa Claus: It's love if you understand!]. Tokyo: Kobundo Shuppan.

Ogihara, Y. (2001). Santa Claus gaku [Wisdom in Santa Claus]. Tokyo: Natsume Shobo.

Woodlands Junior School (2008). Father Christmas. Retrieved December 4, 2008, from

Child Research Net would like to thank Osaka Jogakuin College and Yoko Yamazaki, student and author, for permitting reproduction of this article on the CRN web site.

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